Nicholas Payton, who I have the deepest respect for, challenged me to follow-up on a rather half-thought-out tweet. This is the best I could manage at this time of night. I’m no critic, or musicologist (I’m fairly sure you’ll guess this straight away) and this was written pretty quickly.
1. Nicholas Payton is very right to say that calling things by their proper names is important. Running the risk of being dramatic, “rape”, “ethnic cleansing”, “genocide”, all depend on their accurate and non-discriminatory use to ensure their moral force.
2. My understanding of Nicholas Payton’s argument is that “jazz” as a term has become not only a constriction but a hindrance to the accurate classification of contemporary black american music, or music of that progeny, but also to the healthy development of that music.
3. For me, “jazz” is a family resemblance concept (Wittgenstein).
3.1 We have paradigms of “jazz”, and we have paradigms of “not-jazz”.
3.2 Within “jazz” we have many mutually shared characteristics, such as collective improvisation, swing, syncopation, blues, etc. Any individual work of jazz may have some of these to more or less a degree. None of them are necessary or sufficient for something to count as jazz.
3.3 “Jazz” is also a family resemblance concept in that there are generational features: each generation bears enough resemblance to the previous generation, but over several generations the similarities become less and less.
3.4 One characteristic feature of “jazz” as a family resemblance concept is that it has regularly refreshed its vocabulary from outside itself, or absorbed and amalgamated things until the beginning and end of one and the other were no longer discernible, as happens in families through marriage.
4. “Jazz” has come to be used a term denoting “high art” whether it be Art Blakey proselytising for black America’s greatest contribution to World culture, or the neo-conservative critics such as Stanley Crouch.
4.1 Jazz is high art. It is lots of other stuff too, but it is art. (Argument? Just listen. That’s the best I can come up with.)
4.1.1 That does not exclude other forms of black American music from also being so, e.g. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”
4.2 “High art” should not be exclusive. If it is, that is a social problem regarding the perception of art in general, not a problem with the term “jazz”.
4.3 Classical music drew on the music of the church, folk song, and popular dances.
4.3.1 Contemporary classical music may be a recondite recluse, but it wasn’t always so. It used to be enjoyed by everyone.
4.4 There is no reason for “jazz” to not be comfortable drawing on contemporary urban culture, blues, and gospel, and being inclusive whilst still retaining high artistic aims. I have always understood it to be doing precisely that.
5. For me, the main problem is that “jazz” has become commercial poison, consigning gifted musicians to the back seat.
5.0.1 The number one top spot in the iTunes UK jazz chart is currently occupied by something I would personally describe as an impersonation of jazz, not actual jazz.
5.0.2 People I know tell me they don’t like jazz, then I play them something and they like it but they then say “Oh, but that’s not jazz”.
5.1 Contemporary “jazz” musicians are drawing on, and producing music that is continuous with other musics of black America, but the audiences of that “other” black American music are not in turn exposed to “jazz” despite the fact that that they would probably like it, as witnessed by recent commercial success of Robert Glasper once he was re-categorised as R’n'B. (No disservice to the wonderful record Black Radio intended.)
6. I think I understand Nicholas Payton’s dissatisfaction with the term “jazz” and why he wants to replace it with “BAM”.
6.1 But for me “BAM” is too non-specific.
6.2 Getting rid of “jazz” throws the baby out with the bath water.
6.2.1 There is something in that family-resemblance concept that works, that picks out a distinctive form of music, and which I recognise, which others recognise, and which is the bearer of a distinctively important tradition.
7. I an extremely grateful in the end to the musicians who produce this music which is one of the greatest joys of my life. And when I said “who cares what it is called”, BAM, stretch music, whatever, it was a clumsy way of saying I am just so very grateful for the music, and whatever other disagreements there may be I hope nothing overshadows that.